A new report from Mother Jones says a Facebook News Feed experiment could have had a serious impact on how people voted in the 2012 election.
Facebook has previously come under fire for how it experiments with its News Feed, the stream of updates you see from your Facebook friends. This summer, it was revealed that Facebook conducted an experiment in 2012 that manipulated the emotions of its users.
Writing for Mother Jones, Micah Sifry — one of the cofounders of the Personal Democracy Forum and the editor of techPresident.com — says that for the three months prior to Election Day 2012, Facebook experimented with the News Feeds of 1.9 million users.
On Election Day, Facebook published a note that read: “Facebook is focused on ensuring that those who are eligible to vote know where they can cast their ballots and, if they wish, share the fact that they voted with their friends.”
The social network showed the random 1.9 million users in the experiment more news stories, a move one Facebook data scientist told Mother Jones “measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.”
Facebook data scientist Lada Adamic gave two public talks in 2012, Sifry reports. In the video, Adamic says that after changing the News Feeds of 1.9 million users and studying how they behaved, researchers noted a “statistically significant” increase regarding how much attention users paid to government news. The number who voted climbed from 64% to 67%, meaning a Facebook News Feed experiment positively affected voter turnout by 3%. Of course, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt; users self-reported, so some people could have said they voted but didn’t, or didn’t say they voted but did.
Users were not made aware of the experiment, Sifry writes. By agreeing to Facebook’s Data Use Policy — which all users must do when they sign up for Facebook — you give Facebook permission to include you in psychological experiments like this.
The experiment was used to help Facebook develop something it calls the “voter megaphone,” according to Sifry. That’s a tool that will remind more users to vote every year on Election Day by letting users share buttons on Facebook that say “I’m a Voter” or “I’m voting.”
If this experiment sounds familiar, that’s because it’s not the first time Facebook experimented with its features during election season. Before the 2010 elections, Facebook experimented on 61 million users, putting the “I’m Voting” button in different places on their News Feeds.
Check out the full Mother Jones story here.
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment, and will update this story if we hear back.
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